More advice on faculty-student sexual relationships: JUST. DON’T.


Just sayin’

Ugh. Disgusting! As if we need more proof that we need professional standards that prohibit sexual relationships between faculty and students at all levels.  (As in most of life, the solution is just don’t be an a$$hole, isn’t it?  We can avoid so very much trouble in life if we put up this little sampler in our offices, kitchens, and living rooms and obey.)

I’ve made the point here before about how these relationships poison other faculty-student relationships as well as the learning climate in general. But here’s something else that’s ruined when faculty-student sexual relationships are tolerated, something I have direct and sad experience with myself:  the notion that faculty interest in young women’s brains and careers isn’t tainted by sexual motives.

When I read Fernanda Lopez Aguilar’s experiences as an undergraduate student of Thomas Pogge’s at Yale University, I was reminded of something that happened to me as I was finishing college.  What happened to me was much less dramatic, but it was I think very related to the feelings of confusion and humiliation she recounts in the linked Buzzfeed article.

Sadly, although women are now the majority of college students (and have been for two decades at least), young women frequently have their intellectual ambitions questioned and have to wonder about the interest that senior faculty–especially senior male faculty–have in encouraging them.  Lopez Aguilar thought Pogge was interested in supporting her intellectual work, when it turns out his interest was mostly just sexual and prurient:

Lopez Aguilar said she felt a little uncomfortable, but chalked it up to cultural differences. So she told herself it was normal to discuss her thesis on a bike ride with him and at his home, alone. She thought it was strange that he wanted to crash at the Washington, D.C., apartment where she planned to live with her boyfriend over the summer — Pogge was “very tired” of wasting grant money, he explained — but she told him he was more than welcome.

What else can you say to someone who has generously supported your young ambitions up to that point?  After all he is a world-famous ethicist; he couldn’t possibly suggest or do anything ethically or professionally compromising.  When you’re 21 or 22 years old, you rely on the putative adults in charge to introduce you to professional norms and practices, and you trust them because you must.

A quarter-century ago or more, when I was college senior contemplating graduate school, I went to work one day at my off-campus office job and told my co-workers that I was very excited to have met the advisor I wanted to work with at Penn (who was 40 years older than me), my top choice for grad school, and that he had taken the time to meet with me and talk to me at a recent seminar we had both attended.  He had been encouraging and friendly about my application, and I was over the moon to think that I could be admitted to a top program in my field.

Well, my co-workers (in their 30s, when I was in my 20s) were completely derisive of the idea that this man was interested in me because he thought I’d be a good student for the Ph.D. program and make a decent historian one day.  Their smarmy insinuations were deeply, deeply humiliating and even a little destabilizing:  what if I was completely misreading the signals I was getting from this man, and he was in fact just interesting in a young and decorative sexual object?  Could it be true?  Maybe I was a fool instead of a bright young scholar?

My co-workers were undoubtedly being completely sexist and dismissive of me, in that I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have sexualized the interest that a young man’s potential future advisor showed him, nor would they have been so eager to deflate his excitement and ambition as they were mine.  The memory of that embarrassment still stings, like a shocking slap to the face.  But as I’ve written here before, the Penn History department–the one I eventually joined as a Ph.D. student–was full of professors who had preyed upon and/or dated and/or married their grad students.  (In fact, many of the student daters/marriers would be my professors and/or I would be their T.A.s–but my advisor was never one of these.)  So perhaps my co-workers in that off-campus job were right to be skeptical of my advisor’s interest in cultivating my ambitions.

And that’s yet another reason why faculty need to knock it off, and why the American Historical Association should adopt professional standards that prohibit sexual relationships with our students.  The fact that some faculty do this poisons the atmosphere for all of us and works to the detriment of young women students in particular.

Why, yes! Yes I do!

Why, yes! Yes I do.

So what can we do?  The solution is very simple!  Don’t date your students.  Don’t stalk, harass, or overshare your feels with your students.  Don’t expect them to perform emotional or sexual labor for you.  Treat them like professionals, so that they can become the professionals they want to be without being humiliated or having their or your intellectual enthusiasm questioned or second-guessed.  (And the beauty part is that this works regardless of the sex of the students, the faculty, or of their sexual preferences!  Win-win-WIN!  Everybody wins!)

29 thoughts on “More advice on faculty-student sexual relationships: JUST. DON’T.

  1. Hear, hear! I couldn’t agree more with the prescription. It’s simple. It’s straightforward. It’s the adult thing to do. Which, of course, is why people will refuse to follow the guideline.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The “hate to waste grant money” as an implicit justice claim, rather than just academic budgetary penny pinching by a well-funded scholar–very sly. There’s a very affordable, multi-site b & b. in NW Washington and near Georgetown. Have used it at widely-spaced times and different salary levels for conference housing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was just discussing this with some colleagues over the weekend. Having been in a similar situation more than once (though never entering into a personal relationship with any of the men) I completely agree with how much this can undermine our confidence as female scholars. After the second instance in particular I beat myself up for weeks for being so naive as to think that such an important scholar was actually interested in *my* work. Ha! I have since recovered, but wish I could spare others the humiliation and embarrassment that I experienced. We need a rule!!!!!


  4. You are making a very good point: behavior like that attributed to Pogge tends to encourage people to be skeptical whenever a female student gets praise from a professor. I will say, however, that Pogge’s behavior, if the accounts are true, has been unusually cynical and manipulative.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Philosophy appears to be the worst of all the liberal arts departments for unrepentant sexual harassment + demeaning of female students, especially ones with high potential. I’ve been reading about the problem for years and as far as I can tell, the male-dominated leadership of this field doesn’t have the decency to be ashamed of a very bad track record.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree-Philosophy seems to be the worst. But that doesn’t mean we historians or English proffies or Anthropologists should pat ourselves on the back! (Not that I think you were suggesting that we congratulate ourselves.)


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  7. You are right about how this poisons the atmosphere for others. I remember one particularly smart woman in my MA program who began an affair with a married professor. He was bold enough to come to grad student social with her–hand in hand. He left his wife, temporarily it turns out, only to return with his tail between his legs. The student? She not only bought a ton of furniture thinking they’d live together, she ended up dropping out of the program. Not sure what ever happened to her, but we all felt bad about it before, during, and after.

    I also want to add that this faculty-student relationship extends beyond the school and into the larger profession when “star” male faculty prey on female grad students at other schools under the pretense of supporting their scholarship.


    • Oh, that’s so sad, Karen. Of course, I’m sure the cad in question kept his job, his marriage, and his credit score.

      This story helps make sense of why Jane Austen novels continue to be so popular: like elite women in the British Regency, educated North American women still face a world full of intertwined romantic and economic perils. I keep thinking about poor, foolish Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice!


      • Yes, he kept his job, his marriage, etc. We heard he got a “reprimand” from the chair, but the student was ruined. It got more weird when his wife started coming to department gatherings after the student left. I’ve never forgotten this and have never looked at this man the same way.


      • Ugh. I get it that marriage is complicated and that nobody is perfect. I’ve been married 17+ years myself. And yet: there are in fact other adults in the world to have an affair with who aren’t your students!

        Why aren’t more men embarrassed about succumbing to a tiresome cliche?


  8. Contrarian voice, I guess, and I KNOW this won’t be popular:

    How do you prevent *consensual* (I know, I know, this is deeply problematic) relationships between faculty and students at, say, a state university? I would imagine there would be some quite clear constitutional questions involved. Free association is kind of a thing. Telling two adults they cannot be in a consensual relationship seems like the very thing that many of us who care about civil rights do NOT want the state deciding.

    My undergraduate advisor married a former student whom he met in class. They have been together for 50+ years. One of my Facebook friends met his wife when he was a lecturer, she an undergraduate. They have a beautiful baby and are deeply in love ten years after their wedding. What among those things do any of you have the right to tear asunder? Are these exceptions to the rule? Well, sure. But it doesn’t make them any less true. Male faculty should not be assholes. They should not sexually harass. But a blanket prohibition on adult relationships? Jesus. That’s the reason why my gay brother cannot marry his boyfriend in many states in this country.

    It’s harder to do, but why don’t we attack predation? In other words, rather than blanket prohibition, ho about taking it case-by-case? Is that too complex? Too bad. Complexity is usually not something we shy away from.

    Are we saying that a 32-year-old PhD student is merely a victim if she falls in love with her 34-year-old professor who is a junior faculty member? (What if the student is 34 and the faculty member 32?) What if the PhD student comes in married to the newly hired professor? Must they separate? If not, why is that relationship allowed, even if the one never advises or teaches the other?

    We tried to address this issue on the Faculty Advisory Council of the University of Texas System, and enough of these counterexamples gave us pause. Be wary of regulating the relationships of grownups. Your impressions of victims and perpetrators might get you accused of being part of the patriarchy yourself. And maybe, just maybe, rightfully so. Some 32-year-old women, believe it or not, don’t like to have their agency reduced to victimhood. I find it shocking to have to say this, but sometimes we are not quite as progressive as we think we are.

    I’ll wait for the inevitable backlash (and the ad hominems implying that I want to fuck all of my students) so I can tell my friend that a group of people on a blog think her marriage, and the daughter that resulted, are invalid.


    • dcat, you’re quite right: there is no way to prevent these relationships from happening entirely. Unfortunately, there is no Relationship Overlord who gets to judge these things. Changing an exploitative culture is all we can do.

      People in power should behave like professionals rather than exploit a power dynamic. My point in the previous post I wrote about this last winter was that professional societies should adopt policies that strongly caution against professor-student relationships. Just as physicians shouldn’t have intimate relationships with their patients (and can lose their licenses for this), just as attorneys can be disbarred for seducing their clients, so we faculty should hold ourselves to a much higher standard. As we’re not licensed by the state, the only mechanism we have for trying to effect cultural change in the profession is our professional societies.

      Finally, I don’t know where you get this paranoid fantasy: I’ll wait for the inevitable backlash (and the ad hominems implying that I want to fuck all of my students) so I can tell my friend that a group of people on a blog think her marriage, and the daughter that resulted, are invalid. Ick.


      • To respond to your last point first: Because everything here has been geared toward labelling all of these relationships “icky” and the implied ad hominem that goes with it. I gave some examples of such relationships where the power dynamic may not have fit the “icky” archetype. So, what do you say about the specific cases I mentioned? Which of those are invalid in your mind? “Ick” isn’t, I’m afraid, as compelling an argument as you think it to be.

        You want a “Relationship Overlord” (or at least you think it is “unfortunate” that we don’t have one.) THAT I find ‘ick” and frankly rather fascistic. Trumpian, even. I am not a fan of faculty relationships with students as they are ALMOST always bad ideas. But I’m also not a fan of blanket prohibitions of consensual relationships between adults in those rare cases where there might be more than the ick factor involved. Your Relationship Overlord seems like a benign God until she is not.

        I stand by the “don’t be an asshole” ethos. There are no overlords in that world. Then again, that world is the one we all inhabit.

        As for making our professional societies the arbiters of all that is good and righteous? Maybe. One of our biggest professional societies gave Michael Bellisles its highest honor, though, so I’m not certain we should be looking that direction for ethical clarity.


      • Your argument here boils down to “but they’re in love!!!” and “think about the children!!!” Please.

        It’s not some kind of hardship to insist that people not enter into ethically dubious (if not clearly exploitative) relationships. We all face these choices as adults; it’s our choice whether or not we make the morally responsible decision. Tell it to the disbarred attorneys who had affairs with their clients, or physicians whose licenses were yanked because they dated their patients. Tell it to the high school teachers who are jailed because they had sexual relationships with their students. I’m sure they were all “in love,” or thought they were, at some point.

        My argument is that tolerating professor-student relationships corrupts entire departments and negatively affects the experiences of students regardless of whether or not they’re in sexual relationships with the faculty. I think the educational and work environment interests of the many far, far outweighs the love feelings of a few. If the fee-fees are so strong, then they can wait until after graduation.

        I will continue to speak out against professor-student sexual relationships forever, because I know I’m right. You know I’m right too, and you’re me of fascism (!?!) merely for writing about the moral problems with these kinds of relationships. Godwin’s law, much?


      • Yes, it’s fascist to want for there to be a “Relationship Overlord.” No, it’s not “Godwin’s Law” to invoke as much (Hint: If you don’t understand a concept, don’t invoke it) especially since YOU have used Fascism as a concept to describe Trump.

        Look, Historiann, your last response oozed of a condescension I do not believe you have earned against me, and then it shut off my ability to respond.

        I can condescend too, if this is what we’re doing, and what you were obviously trying. Let’s see how this works: I have been in bigger rooms in more important situations in bigger university systems dealing with larger implications about the very issue to which you are condescending to me about. We (The equivalent of the University of Texas System Faculty Senate) weighed a lot of considerations, and fought a lot of battles. There were actual arguments heard and lots of thoughts considered. And then actual lawyers walked into the actual room and reminded us that we might be dealing with actual adults in actual circumstances, well, it didn’t work well.

        Believe it or not, many of us were women. I think it was the majority of the whole body. At the policy level, frankly, we knew what the fuck we were talking about. It’s an insult for you to assume that your individual sanctimony takes precedent.

        That you don’t grasp Godwin’s law is a failing on your part. It is not, however, a failing, on the part of people who have dealt with these issues on a level far, far, far above anything that you have. Believe it or not, shrillness doesn’t surpass either policy knowledge (that you obviously don’t have) or legal comprehension (that, well, ditto).


      • Hey, dcat: did I walk into your living room and piss on your floor?

        No, I did not–but you’re treating me and my space like this.

        Sexual relationships between faculty and students are wrong, and you know I’m right. I don’t understand how you think insulting me is going to change my mind, or why you think my opinion is so important if it’s as uninformed as you say.

        This space is going to continue to feature my honest opinions regardless of your opinions! YOU CAN’T STOP ME!!!! A-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!!11!!11!. Eleventy.


  9. I agree with those saying professional associations should ban college faculty from dating people over whom they have a direct supervisory role. Anything beyond that is best left to the college level, since situations with “students at one’s university” can be much different as we look at increasingly large universities and/or universities with more non-traditional student bodies.

    Here is an underlying cause of people within the professional seeing it differently though: there is less mobility. If a doctor and patient develop serious feelings for one another, it is usually a simple matter to change doctors, unless you are talking about a specialist in a less populated area. Changing Ph.D. advisors isn’t as easy; in the very least, you’d be in the same department where everyone still knows everyone else and what happened and the old advisor might still have influence on scholarship committees and whatnot or be one of the only people in the vicinity of the student’s specialty. I don’t have any good answers to this.

    Ultimately, I agree on the need for cultural change which could eventually eliminate the abusive cases. A guideline from a professional association is a way to push that along.


    • You’re right that there are fewer jobs and less mobility for faculty vs. other professionals. But we all have mobility when it comes to dating and romantic choices! We can choose to direct our attention elsewhere, or we can be unethical and exploitative. That’s the choice I see.

      The fact of the matter is that a lot of serial dating predation of students is done by men who already have partners/spouses/etc. So I’m really not sympathetic to the argument that “there’s no one else to date.”

      If this were an equal-opportunity issue with women and men faculty alike, I might see your point. But it’s not. It’s about turning mostly one class of students–women–into targets for older & mostly male sexual interest, and turning a blind eye or even tacitly approving of older men who prey on young women in their charge.


      • I wasn’t making the argument that college faculty have no one else to date, just thinking about administrative policies. My view is also perhaps colored by the fact that I haven’t seen as much exploitation as you have and am not a young woman dodging attention. At my current job, the only professor I know of who married a student was actually a woman who married a non-traditional student in another department whom she met off campus. From the start of my undergrad years to now, I’ve seen two confirmed cases of faculty-student relationships that one might call creepy or inappropriate and three that seemed to leave professionalism intact and didn’t involve the types of adultery or severe age differentials you describe. If I was more familiar with Penn’s history program or exposed to what goes on in philosophy from more than the news, my tone would probably be different, though on substance I think we agree far more than we disagree.

        What I was also thinking is that doctors, etc, quite possibly behave the same way as faculty, but are more easily able to make the situation appear appropriate than faculty. In that sense, this would be a particular profession’s manifestation of a broader social problem.

        Liked by 1 person

      • OK, here’s a confession: While out running an errand I thought of four more creepy/inappropriate cases with a suspected seventh, while adding nothing to the column that seems unproblematic. In my defense for forgetting them, none of the additional cases were from my own institutions or among people I work with regularly. The pattern, though, is different from what you describe: They are generally single junior faculty who either deliberately court from among the undergraduates because they think they can or because they were willing to allow a relationship to develop with someone from that quarter even if they also dated among non-students. From a professional standpoint, of course, the problem is the same, in that the other students have to wonder if their mentoring has ulterior motives.

        Liked by 1 person

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